Meyers Leonard was always a kid in a man's body during his playing days at Robinson.

He grew to 6-foot-9 as a sophomore and hit 7-0 by the time he was a senior -- the year he led Robinson to the IHSA Class 2A State Championship -- and made an early commitment to the University of Illinois. But Leonard never played like the weight of his potential was on his shoulders. On the court, he was exuberant and animated, and a bit of a pest.

But Leonard had to grow up fast. He didn't play much as a freshman at Illinois, and people wondered if the 7-footer with the athletic ability of a much smaller man was all hype. But he flashed what he was capable of as a sophomore, averaging 13.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 8.2 rebounds, and suddenly became a coveted NBA prospect.

Leonard, now 7-1, was a lottery pick, drafted 11th in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. After getting significant minutes as a rookie (17.5, averaging 5.5 points, 3.7 rebounds), an Achilles injury hobbled Leonard early in his second season and he fell out of the rotation.

Despite dealing with those calling him a bust, Leonard remains optimistic his best days as a basketball player are ahead of him. He recently got engaged, and -- when he can -- he still likes to be the kid he was at Robinson. Leonard returned to Robinson last week and held the first Meyers Leonard Basketball Camp, which was attended by more than 125 kids from first grade through high school.

Q: What made you decide to start a camp in Robinson and run it yourself?

A: I've always been proud of where I came from. When I'm here, everyone treats me the same as they always did. I just wanted to give back.

The idea came up after my rookie year, but the dates didn't work out. But we started a little earlier this year and got it advertised quick enough to get the kids around Robinson and the surrounding towns excited.

I just wanted to be around them, teach them some things about basketball and hopefully some things about life. I was a bit of a goofball when I was little, but I always held myself to a high standard. I wanted to show them some professionalism, teach them to always chase their dreams and also give them something fun to do.

It was important for me to give back to Robinson. I wanted to be around them, show my face, and I thought it would be cool for them to be around me.

Q: Do you still keep up with Robinson basketball?

A: It's becoming more and more tough. Aaron Siler is like my little brother, so I followed them while he played. But he finished a couple of years ago, so that's when it started to trail off for me. I hope they win, though.

On May 25, Leonard got engaged to Peoria native Elle Bielfeldt, whom he met his freshman year at Illinois.

Q: How did you meet Elle?

A: I didn't go out a whole lot at Illinois, but I did a few times after the season was over my freshman year and I noticed her around. She was friends with the girlfriend of one of the senior basketball players (Mike Davis). We studied together a couple times, then we started talking more and dating that summer.

We've been together just about three years now. It's been long-distance at times, but she was a year ahead in school, so she came out to Portland for the second semester of my rookie year and the second semester again this year. 

With her, I struck gold. I hit the lottery. I couldn't have a better woman in my life. She understands what my life and schedule are like, and she pushes me to be better on and off the court.

Q: We've all heard the stories. Is it difficult being in a relationship as an NBA player?

A: For me, it's not hard at all. I've always been an extremely loyal person to everyone in my life, friends and family. One-hundred percent, I would never get caught up with any of that. I know who I want in my life, and I would never in a million years do anything to mess that up. She's a special girl. I'm lucky. I've never even been tempted.

Q: What was your "Welcome to the NBA" moment?

A: My first game as a rookie, we opened at home and we played the Lakers -- with Kobe (Bryant) and Dwight (Howard).

I came in the game and within a minute or so there was a foul and they went to the free-throw line. I got in position to box out, then I look over and it's Kobe Bryant standing there. I wasn't in awe, but I was thinking to myself, 'Holy smokes, it's finally here. You're in the NBA and you're doing this.'

Q: You got regular minutes and put up decent numbers as a rookie. How did you feel about your first season?

A: There were ups and downs. l hit the "rookie wall," where you get tired in late January-early February just because you're not used to playing 82 games, flying all over the place -- four or five cities in six or seven -- and playing against guys bigger, physical and more athletic than you faced in college.

I was in a situation where I got some free minutes because we didn't have a lot of depth, and I took advantage of that for sure. I thought I did a pretty decent job. It's tough as a young big -- it takes a lot of playing time to learn how to play the position right.

It's especially challenging on defense. If you think about it, I played at a small high school, so that experience isn't relative at all. In college, I didn't play much as a freshman, so that's not relative. My sophomore year I got some experience guarding bigger players, but coming in as a rookie ... I just hadn't faced that on a regular basis.

This past season started out bad with the Achilles injury and never picked up steam. Outside of a couple stretches, Leonard didn't see much playing time. He appeared in just 40 games after playing in 69 as a rookie.

Q: What was this season like to endure?

A: I didn't recover quickly from the injury, and a couple of teammates played well early in the season so I fell out of the rotation. I eventually worked my way back in, but then fell out again.

I continued to work extremely hard in practice but our team was very good this year and our starters played a lot of minutes, so we didn't practice much. I did my individual workouts, where I worked on my range, setting screens, and running pick and rolls. It becomes the feeling like you're a robot with those things.

I did improve a lot, but it's hard to improve when you're not in live game situations or in a practice where we're going five-on-five with the starters and everyone is getting after it.

Q: As a lottery pick who has yet to become a star player, there are going to be those who call you a bust. How difficult has it been dealing with that?

A: I had to shut down social media toward the end of last season -- I just wanted to focus on the rest of the year.

But to be honest, it really doesn't bother me. Ninety-eight percent of people have absolutely no idea what they're talking about -- they don't really know me as a person or a player. Everyone has their own opinion and they're entitled to it -- I respect that. 

The people I listen to are my teammates and coaches. Sometimes people just want to get under your skin. It's not like me to fire back. It's not worth it.

Being a lottery pick with a big, athletic body -- people expected it to magically click for me. But it's not that simple. I work as hard as I can, I believe in myself and I'm going to continue to gain trust in my teammates and coaching staff.

Q: Have you developed any close relationships with members of the Trail Blazers?

A: I have. (Trail Blazers assistant coach) Kim Hughes is a good man with a great heart. He's 6-11 and he played in the NBA and ABA -- he won the NBA title in 1975 playing with Dr. J. He was an assistant with the Clippers for nine or 10 years and was head coach of the Clippers for part of the season.

(Current Trail Blazers General Manager) Neil Olshey used to be the Clippers' GM, and he brought Kim over from L.A. to work with me. He worked with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman over there.

We've grown extremely close. He's so knowledgeable when it comes to the game -- I've learned so much from him.

Then there's Joel Freeland. He came in as a rookie with me, but he'd already played six or seven years in Spain before me came here. We're very close.

Q: Freeland, a fellow center, was a player who took time away from you this year. How did that affect the relationship?

A: Between the lines, it's competitive between us. But we're both nice, genuine people off the court. We know it's never personal. There will never be hate or jealousy between us. It's only business.

Q: You've said your goal this summer is to play as much high-level competitive basketball as possible, including NBA Summer League again (beginning July 12). What are aspects of the game you'll be focusing on heading into your third season?

A: The coaches love my ability to space the court and take the five man away from the basket. I just need to be a little more ready for my shot when I'm open. I also need to continue to work on my post game and defensive rebounding.

I really need to work on my one-on-one defense in the post, and my ball screen defense. Sixty-five percent of NBA offense is pick-and-roll, so that's important.

Otherwise, I have to do what I do well -- beat other bigs down the court and use my athleticism to my advantage.

Leonard's rookie contract is guaranteed through next season. After that, there's a team option to pick up a fourth year.

Q: What is your goal for this season?

A: Just to be on the court and prove to people I can be a good player. It's going to take a lot of hard work from here until whenever the last day the ball is bouncing. Hopefully, that's a really long time.

I have confidence in myself, as do a lot of people involved with the team. I just have to show it. I want to be a factor next season.

Q: Do you still follow Illinois basketball?

A: Yes, I do. And I'm still pretty close to (former Illini coach Bruce Weber). I just talked to Bruce a couple weeks ago, and I talk to (former Illini and current Kansas assistant) Jerrance Howard, (former Illini assistant and current Champaign Central coach) Wayne McClain and (former Illini and current Champaign St. Thomas More girls coach) Jay Price.

I do talk to Coach (John) Groce as well, and his assistants. They're good guys as well. I respected that they didn't get upset with me when I decided to leave for the NBA.

They have a lot of young talent, but the Big Ten is brutal. It's hard to go on the road and win in the Big Ten, especially with young players. But Coach Groce is starting to put together a program where everyone is buying into what we wants. And Coach Weber is too, at Kansas State. I root for both of those guys.

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​jconn@herald-review.com|(217) 421-7971


Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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